Strange things are happening in the land of Driszaw, and it is up to the Special Spirit Squad to investigate.
In the previous chapter the Squad investigated reports of missing tools. They found out that a gnome child had been nicking them in order to construct a shelter for his fellow homeless orphans. Instead of turning him in to the guards, they proposed that the blacksmith take the child in as an apprentice.
They now turn their attention to rumors of a witch-sighting…
Glurf awoke in the bath. Although she had been able to convince the others to get her a separate room, she had been unable to sleep in it; the dry comfort of sheets and blankets had kept her up most of the night.
She felt terrible. Glurf knew that the mammals liked to use these basins of water to clean themselves, yet she had been occupying this one for hours and had even filled it with mud, filthing it up thoroughly.
Heqet would have to forgive her for being a little selfish. Yesterday had not been easy. She wasn’t looking forward to facing the rest of the Special Spirit Squad after how they reacted to her being a woman yesterday. The yellow-skinned human in particular seemed mighty miffed.
There was a loud knock on the door. “Oi! How long are you going to be in there for?!”
Glurf pulled the plug and waited for the water to drain. “Almost finished!” Once the tub was dry, she scooped up the mud as best she could and carried it in her arms, leaving a trail behind her. When she opened the door, a hurrying halfling wearing nothing but a towel zoomed past her, pushing her out and shutting the door behind him.
“Sarenrae’s Teets, what did you do in here?!”
Glurf scurried off.
The tavern’s mess hall was a mighty mess. Glurf had noticed that the merriment had lasted well into the night, but she had no idea what they had been doing in here; looking over the chaos and destruction, she could only guess. There were tankards, mugs and puddles of broken glass lying on the ground. Several patrons were sleeping on the floor; most tables had been smashed, split open trough the middle.
Glurf had already quietly made it halfway towards the exit – she didn’t want to disturb anyone – when she noticed that Nathaniel was one of the snoozing drunks. He had a rather sore looking black eye and his lip was torn. As she reflexively rushed to his aid, Glurf dropped the mud on her prospective patient’s face.
“Sarenrae’s Ti- Glurf?”
Nathaniel wiped the mud out of his eyes and got up slowly, groaning in pain. “Oh. My head…”
“I’m sorry!” Glurf rushed to say. “Are you alright?”
“It’s fine…I’m fine,” Nathaniel groaned as he cleaned the rest off his face. “What were you doing with…mud? This is mud, right?”
“I slept in the bath.”
“Well, that explains it,” quipped Nathaniel sarcastically.
Glurf examined the inquisitor. “You’re hurt; what happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happened!” Ko entered the mess hall with his arm around Maurice’s shoulder. “The champ happened! Show ’em your guns, Maurice!”
Maurice grinned and flexed his admittedly well-toned biceps. “That’s our boy!” boasted Ko. “Feast your eyes – this is the arm that bested even the mightiest of…- what was this place called again?”
“The Mad Musketeers,” mumbled Nathaniel.
“Right! Even the maddest of musketeers did not stand a chance against our boy. Da champ!”
Ko was being loud enough to wake up even the groggiest of tavern brawlers, including the barkeep. “Ward! Give us the heartiest meal of the house – a breakfast of champions!”
“You got it, champ,” said the barkeep, oozing bile.
The Squad sat down at one of the broken tables. If you avoided the crack, you could still use it just fine.
“I must admit that, even though I still think it a boorish past-time, I quite enjoyed the arm-wrestling.” said Maurice.
“Only because you won,” groaned Nathaniel as he rolled his arm around his shoulder.
“Uhm, excuse me, but what is arm-wrestling?” asked Glurf.
“Nothing for girls,” bit Ko.
“Anyhow,” said Nathaniel, calling the bickering children to order, “we still have nine more cases in this city.” He rifled through his stack of papers and selected one with rather crude hand-writing. “This is the one I wanted to investigate yesterday,” he said to Ko, “since it seemed the most urgent; a farmer is said to have found a witch.”
“A witch!” Ko flared up, “A wicked enchantress! We must make haste! There is no telling what kind of damage she could do to those poor and helpless farmers!”
“Quite,” stressed Nathaniel. “Says here she’s already turned one into a newt.”
“He got better.”
“Right,” said Maurice, “Tell me you’re not believing this one?”
“It does seem like farmer’s superstition,” agreed Nathaniel, “but you never know. Witches – or powerful enchantresses with evil intentions – are very much real, so we cannot be too careful.”
Ko agreed with this wholeheartedly. “My blades are ready,” he said solemnly. “But my belly is not – let’s have some chow, first!”
The Special Spirit Squad enjoyed their ‘breakfast of champions’; eggs, sausages, beans and even some black pudding. Nathaniel paid out of pocket, and also promised to pay for the damage caused in last night’s merriment. He was very adamant about getting a receipt, which he kept in a little notebook. Everybody ate their fill without worry; everyone, except for Glurf, who hardly touched her plate.
The farmer who was said to have captured a witch lived in the fields outside of the city-walls; it took the Squad the whole morning to find the right hamlet. They knew they were trudging through the right acres when they found all the fields abandoned; carts, ploughs and other farming equipment had just been left unattended, with oxen lazily enjoying their day off in the afternoon sun. Everybody, as it would turn out, had gathered in the small town square.
When the peasants saw the samurai ride into town on his beautiful white horse, they flocked around what they assumed to be an important lordship, swarming him with questions. “Milord!” said a burly fellow who presented himself as the leader, “We’ve found a witch – may we burn her?”
The rabble roused in agreement. “Yeah! Burn her!” said one of them. “She’s a witch!” added another helpfully.
Ko was rather pleased with this sudden spurt of attention, as was his horse. “Calm down, good fellows! I am Koumi Ko, of the Special Spirit Squad” – here he flashed his badge, as usual – “and rest assured, if it truly is a witch you have found, then we shall most certainly burn her.”
Glurf had stuck close to Nathaniel in the back, trying to stay out of sight, and at the word ‘burn’ she began to cower, clutching the inquisitor’s mantle. She tried to get his attention, but her demure attempts could not overpower the rowdy crowd. Besides, Nathaniel was distracted by his piercing hangover; all of this ruckus did little to help ease his headache. He took a sip from his hip flask.
Maurice, however, was as fit as ever and ready to play the part of judicator. “Yes, but how do we know that she is a witch?”
“She looks like one!” yelled a peasant.
“Very well then!” said Ko, Bring her forward.”
The crowd parted, allowing the Squad to see the much-discussed witch. A tall, yet frail and lithe girl with flowing green hair and ditto eyes was tied to a stake on top of a stack of firewood. She was indeed wearing black , witchy robes and had a long, crooked nose that, on closer inspection, appeared to be a carrot stuck to her face with string. Despite her mortal predicament, the woman seemed perfectly happy to be there. She was smiling serenely, even though her mouth had been gagged. There was nothing but benevolence in her big, sparkling eyes.
“See? She’s dressed like one!” said a peasant.
Glurf was now cringing violently as she pulled so hard on Nathaniel’s cloak that he almost lost his balance.
“That’s no nose” she pressed to him in a hoarse whisper, “that’s a carrot!”
“I can see that,” mumbled Nathaniel once he managed to get his cloak back. “Alright, alright. Let’s break this up.”
Maurice, however, had no intention of breaking anything up. Maurice wasn’t stupid; he could tell in one glance that they weren’t dealing with an actual witch, but he was having way too much fun riling Ko and the peasants up.
“Listen.” said Maurice, “there are ways to tell whether she is a witch.”
“Tell us!” demanded Ko.
“Yes! Tell us!” the crowd agreed.
Maurice took a deep breath and was getting ready to start his lecture when the peasants got distracted. Nathaniel had tried to get to the ‘witch’, but the farmers were blocking his way.
“Come on,” Nathaniel sighed. “Just…- don’t make this difficult, please. I just want to remove the gag so we can ask her a few questions.”
“You can’t, sir!” said one of the peasants, “She’ll try and cast a spell!”
“Yeah!” agreed another, “She turned me into a newt!”
“A newt?!” asked Ko.
“I got better,” admitted the peasant.
“We already did that bit,” groaned Nathaniel weakly. He did not have the strength to move these people with force, but he did not have the patience to convince them with reason, either. He was at an impasse.
“THIS ISN’T FUNNY!”
The rabble instantly quieted down as they all looked in shock at the man-sized toad that had just belted out. They had been too distracted by the important-looking lord on his high horse to notice his strange companion.
“Come on, come on, move it!” Glurf boomed as she literally tossed some hapless peasants aside. “Enough of this!”
“He got turned into a frog!” said the peasant who had been turned into a newt.
“A frog?” asked Ko.
“She,” Glurf roared back. “She was turned into a frog – wait, no, toad! And I haven’t been turned into anything; I’ve always been a toad!”
Meanwhile, Nathaniel had already removed the gag.
“Sorry about all of this, m’am,” said Nathaniel. “Are you alright?”
The lithe woman looked at Nathaniel with her big, green eyes and said something in a strange, sing-song language.
“She’s casting a spell!” hissec Ko. “Gag ‘er, Nate!”
“No you moron,” groaned Nathaniel, exasperated. “She’s speaking Sylvan.”
“Oh,” said Ko.
“Oh,” agreed Maurice.
“Oh.” went the peasants.
As an inquisitor, Nathaniel Sharp had learned to speak many languages and Sylvan happened to be one of them. “I said,” Nathaniel tried in Sylvan, “are you alright m’am?”
“O hello handsome aasimar male!” said the woman. “You are the first person in this strange land that I have been able to understand. Tell me, is this ‘ritual of hazing’ nearing its completion? Your customs are strange to me, and I do not wish to be disrespectful, but I have classes to attend. I do believe I may have missed several already.”
“Yeah,” said Nathaniel in Sylvan as he started untying her, “you’re done.” Glurf was ready to toss anyone who tried to stop Nathaniel aside, but the peasants – including Ko and Maurice – seemed to be too baffled to do anything.
“You’re an eladrin?” asked Nathaniel.
“Indeed I am,” said the woman. “I have come here to do the exchange of the studies. I must say that I am already very happy that I have decided to follow this program. Your welcoming customs are quite peculiar.”
“You can say that again,” Nathaniel agreed. He pointed at the eladrin’s black garbs. “School uniform?”
“O yes indeed,” she confirmed, “A shame; I do not like the wearing of the black. I prefer more vibrant colors, such as pink, yellow, and blorgscotch.”
“I bet you do,” said Nathaniel, not even bothering to ask what that last one was. He turned to address the crowd. “Alright, you idiots, you managed to capture an eladrin exchange student to the local wizarding academy. You’re lucky that she thought you were welcoming her, or else she might have fried you with a flurry of lightning bolts.”
“So…” said a peasant slowly, “She…is a witch!”
“A witch!” yelled another.
“No!” yelled Glurf. “No burning!”
“Oh…” whined the peasants, “too bad.”
Nathaniel decided that it would be prudent if the Squad escorted the air-headed eladrin to the academy themselves, lest she got lost on her way there and mistaken for a witch again. She told Nathaniel her full name, but he could not pronounce it, so they both agreed that ‘Lin’ would suffice.
“It is a pity that your Toad friend does not speak Sylvan,” said Lin to Nathaniel. “As we are both strangers to these lands, I am sure that we would find much common ground; I could learn from her experience. Could you ask her how long she has been in this realm?”
“So you’re able to tell that she’s female?” asked Nathaniel.
“Why, of course!” said Lin with a giggle, “males don’t usually get that big, silly. Imagine if they did! Also, she does not have a dark spot on her throat, nor a nuptial pad.”
“Nup-tu-al?” asked Nathaniel, barely able to pronounce this novel Sylvan term.
“Nuptial. It is a secondary sex characteristic present on mature male Toad- and Frogfolk. It is a spiked, epithelial swelling on the forearm and prepollex that aids with grip, used primarily by the males to grasp females during amplexus.”
“I’m not even going to ask,” said Nathaniel.
Since they were chatting in a language of their own, Nathaniel and Lin had secluded themselves from the rest of the group, leaving Glurf with Ko and Maurice, the people she was trying to avoid. Ko in particular had been giving her weird looks ever since they had left the hamlet.
“You know,” said Ko, “the way you tossed those suckers like sacks of rice…you must have a mean arm.”
“My arms aren’t mean,” protested Glurf, “they’re nice.”
“Yes, but powerful…I wonder…” Ko looked at Maurice. “Do you think-”
“I thought arm-wrestling wasn’t for girls,” said Glurf sharply.
“It is if they can win!”
“And think of the money we could make!” Maurice agreed.
“I don’t gamble,” grumbled Glurf, “gambling is wrong.”
“For fun, then?”
“Well, all right them,” said Glurf, happy to be asked to join something, anything, even if she thought it was stupid. “I like fun.”
“Another thing we have in common!\.” Ko admitted.
The academy wasn’t exactly hard to find; its towers were the tallest buildings of Lamelf and were visible from way outside of the city-walls. It was a small miracle that the air-headed Lin had not been able to find it. When they delivered her to the staff there was much relief, as the eladrin exchange student had been expected days ago. The Squad waved goodbye to Lin, and went their own way.
By the time that the Special Spirit Squad was done the sun had already set, which meant that they could consider tackling an actual haunting, which are known to occur mostly at night. Nathaniel did not want to tackle anything before dinner, however. They were served a rather tasty stew at the Musketeers, but Glurf did not touch her food. Nathaniel had noticed that she had barely eaten in the morning and wasn’t eating now, either. He decided to her ask about it.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude,” said Glurf as she picked up the tiny spoon and emptied it in her huge mouth. “Mmm! Delicious!”
Nathaniel took her plate. “I don’t think this is healthy for you, Glurf; you’re a Toad. You’re supposed to eat…bugs, right?”
“She seemed to like my candy,” said Ko. “Want some for dinner?”
“…Yes.” Glurf said with a forced smile. “Please.”
Nathaniel wasn’t convinced, however. “I don’t think sweets are any better, Ko. Frankly I’m not sure she even likes them. Glurf, listen; you don’t have to pretend to like human food. Or Ko’s candy. Just be honest.”
Glurf tried to suppress a sob. Her mighty lips were trembling. “I…uhm…”
Nathaniel sighed. “Come on. Let’s find you some bugs. Barkeep?”
“Where do you keep the trash?”
And so, for the first of many nights, the Special Spirit Squad ate their dinner next to the dumpster where all the flies gathered, which made both the ward and the Toad very happy; the barkeep didn’t have to deal with swarms of insects and Glurf could actually eat the food she liked.
“I can’t believe she was only pretending to like my candy,” muttered Ko darkly, “see, this is why women can’t be trusted.”
“She was just trying to get you to like her, Ko,” said Nathaniel.
“Yeah, like that‘s ever going to happen.”
“What is your problem with women, anyway?” asked a baffled Maurice.
“Anyway,” said Nathaniel before Ko could answer, “once Glurf has filled her tank,we’re off to the zoo. Jake the zoo attendant has seen what he describes as ‘otherworldly lights’ coming from one of the enclosures at night. Could be a ghost.”
“Or some kind of fluorescent fungus,” suggested Maurice.
“Or fireflies!” said a feasting Glurf. “O Heqet, I hope it’s fireflies!”
“Well, if it is,” said Nathaniel, “we’ll be able to handle it, easily.”
“Yes. Deliciously.” Nathaniel looked at his half-eaten plate, smelled Glurf and her garbage-mosquitoes, and decided that he was full.
“Let’s hope it’s fireflies.”
Next chapter: The Squad investigates strange, ghostly lights at the local zoo…
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